There are many Chicagos depicted inside the pages of Wherever I’m At, a sweeping and ambitious anthology that does something rare: gives 134 living poets a chance to rhapsodize about the same, multifaceted city.
There are hazy lakeside memories of new fatherhood and homages to long-gone Woolworth stores. There are sketches of protests and meditations on neighborhood smells. In all, the book, which publishes this week, is a 300-page celebration of Chicago featuring kaleidoscopic portraits by poets with local ties.
Among the standouts are Luis Alberto Urrea, Rachel DeWoskin and Avery R. Young, three poets who are currently living and working in Chicago. They shared with WBEZ the thoughts behind their poems, which are featured below.
The book also showcases about two dozen works of art, including contributions from canonical artists such as photographer Terry Evans and painter Kerry James Marshall. In total, “Chicago comes across as being a visceral and incredibly energetic place,” said the project’s editor, Don Evans. “There’s all the glory of Chicago, but there’s also all of the grime. It’s a place that is many different things.”
Like the city it captures, the project has a complicated backstory. The collection had been an unwieldy, decade-long project of the Chicago poet Robin Metz, who died of pancreatic cancer before he could see his book completed. Metz asked Evans, the founder of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, to take over and handed his friend a cache of hundreds of poems.
But when a hesitant Evans began to comb through the work, he found most of the poems to be outdated or previously published — or the contact information for the listed poet had expired. So, Evans started from scratch.
And while it’s not the book Metz first envisioned, Evans said it very much reflects his late friend’s spirit. “I wanted poems that took us to all these different places that are Chicago and all these different ways we know Chicago,” said Evans. “I think we’re at our best as a city when all of these different ways that we experience the city are shared.”
Here are three poets that, together, represent some of the poetry coming out of the city right now.
Luis Alberto Urrea:
Inspired by the sounds of a city he adopted
When Luis Alberto Urrea first moved to Chicago 22 years ago, he found himself in a foreign landscape. For Urrea, who was born in Mexico and spent much of his life on the West Coast, Chicago was full of fresh sounds, sights and smells. “I started jotting down notes and little snippets,” explained Urrea, whose literary decorations include the American Book Award and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. “It was just like little pictures of a city. Little blips. Things that moved me.”
As Urrea’s musings began to fill his notebook, he realized they lent themselves to haiku, a Japanese form the writer greatly admires. The Signal-to-Noise Ratio: Chicago Haiku features 13 such observations. One, titled “Ogden & Western” reflects a hand-painted sign that Urrea would pass when driving home to Naperville. Another, “South Loop” is a short dialogue he overhead while waiting for the train. Together, they are a slideshow that captures a vast, vibrant city.
Excerpts from The Signal-to-Noise Ratio: Chicago Haiku
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Ogden & Western
Oil change and filter –
Coffee and donuts
Do I transfer here
To catch the Orange Line?
I’ll get fired for sure
Writing about her South Loop neighbors
Rachel DeWoskin is a consummate city person. “I’ve always lived in cities and high rises partly because I like being surrounded by people,” said DeWoskin, who teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. “I like urban chaos and proximity to human beings.”
That’s one reason the COVID-19 pandemic hit DeWoskin particularly hard. She was lonely for strangers. As her life became a set of new, sterile rituals — wiping down groceries, riding the elevator cloaked in both a mask and fear — Dewoskin felt the weight of her isolation. “I felt really unmoored,” said DeWoskin.
As the pandemic dragged on, one nightly routine started to imbue DeWoskin with a sense of hope. Every night at 8 p.m., hundreds of DeWoskin’s South Loop neighbors would come to their windows and wave a flashlight as a way to say hello to one another. “I found it so moving,” recalled DeWoskin. “This little gesture — a constellation of person-made light. It gave me such a sense of solidarity with Chicago. It sustained me in a way that I’ll always be grateful for.”
That sense and shape of light became the basis for DeWoskin’s poem, chance, chicago.
By Rachel DeWoskin
what bagels and bouquets of kale do in a bath I’m
learning/dancing/half-dressed/mambo #5, my kitchen
designated tetris spaces: contamination station,
soap station, rinse station, dry station, every jam
jar sprayed, surface of each lettuce leaf clean, an outside
chance i know, but risk’s expansive/ is one sun hot enough
to burn this off, away from us, are we us, are we tough
or broken, are we what we eat, wash, shrink from, hide
inside ourselves? or safe? strange groceries stack and gather,
repeat, vanish, re-make patterns, re-make us, these new days
take tiny shapes, then slip and fall away, become ways
lives narrow into—stop/points of light on the lake/ i’d rather
lick you randomly, raise our arms in a stadium wave, take
the opposite of a distanced risk, touch everything, but now
chaos disorders wonder/ letters, stanzas, rhyme somehow
let this city sparkle, please: at 8 each night, people make
a constellation, shining flashlights out our windows, some
solidarity in those bright dots, manmade stars: hello
i see you. we’d never have met, but here we are, a show
of company, south loop a momentary escape from
lonely/ pilsen, bronzeville, hyde park, flashing stand
with me for a second, thinking: maybe we’ll find something
unlike shared terror, past surviving all we clean, catch, bring.
chicago blinks in sync for a second/ light carries, let it land—
Avery R. Young:
Crafting a West Side elegy
Avery R. Young was taking photographs near the intersection of Pulaski and Wilcox Avenues when a buried memory began to surface. It was an image of his friend Bunk and Bunk’s girlfriend, Tomika, when they first met at a nearby liquor store in the early 1990s. Their flirtation was a delicate, choreographed dance that Young can still picture. Tomika coyly asking Bunk to reach for a bottle on a top shelf and Bunk obliging chivalrously.
Just a few days prior, Young, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, had seen a prompt from fellow West Side poet Phillip B. Williams (who also appears in Wherever I’m At) that encouraged poets to imagine how they might describe their youth to their own children. With Bunk already on his mind, Young decided to embody his friend’s voice rather than his own.
“The poem serves to remember how life and death are extremely present at all times,” said Young of his friend, who died in a car crash just a few years after meeting Tomika. “But it’s also to just show his kids a cute moment that I witnessed.”
But Young’s poem, a poem written in de voice of a parent Bunk 1973-1994, depicts more than visual memory – it also observes a specific sound. “Chicago is so rich with sounds and rhythms,” said Young. “I wanted to honor this specific Chicago. How these people sound when they speak. I wanted to capture that language and code. The poem is how I remember Bunk.”
a poem written in de voice of a parent Bunk 1973-1994
By Avery R. Young
inside co(r)ner sto(re) yo mama
profile erything right in stretch pant(s) actin
like her cuddnt reach a strawberry boones farm
from de cooler when her turnt tward(s) yourn(s) truly
& say hey
whatever yo name is
u tall enuf
get dis fo(r) me immediately i knew
a house of us & three baby(s)
wif my face punctuate(id) by her deep dimple(s)
in ‘91 inside co(r)ner sto(re)
all teef & cocoa butter
adidas track suit gold rope & joop
high top racin wif de sear(s) tower
to see what wud reach god firs(t)
dat day no blood or yourn(s) truly
to wipe off concrete
no officer briggins or meechie
of her screamin on de new(s)
or picture of her in de paper
to keep yo mama from crossin yellow tape
to snatch me from gettin to god
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee. Follow her on Twitter @elly33.